14 top dishes I ate in 2023 – a highly personal list of my best bites of the year.
2023 had its moments. I visited a broad swath of the East Coast this summer, including New York City, Cooperstown, Plymouth – the Mayflower is back! – and Boston. Though I did not fly overseas, I dug into more California communities, including San Diego, Paso Robles and Mendocino. And I have the good fortune to live in the San Francisco Bay Area where I ate my way through San Francisco, the North Bay (Marin, Sonoma, Napa), Oakland and beyond.
Finding great food, dishes you want to return to a restaurant for, just so you can eat it again, is one of the pleasures of my work. Despite inflation and other economic pressures on restaurants and their diners, dishes that define a chef or restaurant are available in force. These are just some of my favorites. Please share some of your favorites, too!
Anomaly yam royale, San Francisco
Press a spoon next to the Hokkaido scallop to shatter a black sesame cap, beneath which a soft mound of yuzu-flecked yam awaits. Textural contrasts – creamy uni, chewy yuzu, and the ticky-tack crunch of the black sesame cracker balance each flavor bomb spoonful that doesn’t stop ticking after you swallow. Bravo, chef!
Tender Heart asparagus salad, San Francisco
A birthday dinner at the restaurant inside the Line Hotel yielded many treasures from executive chef Joe Hou including a raw scallop with buttermilk dashi and roasted duck atop duck fat rice. The dish that made me a forever fan was the asparagus salad. Julienned, the green’s freshness was tamed, then balanced with black garlic wafers, chewy yuba strips and a pistachio “cream” that spun me into an asparagus lover.
Dalida octopus and sujuk, San Francisco
Blending Mexican and Middle Eastern flavors is an extension of the chef power couple that are behind the cuisine at the Presidio’s new hot spot. In dishes of forest mushroom tabbouleh , steamed corn masa with grape leaves and salt baked sea bream, chefs Laura and Sayat Ozyilmaz – she is Mexican, he is Turkish – developed a menu that graciously expresses their partnership, yielding plentiful “how come no one thought of this sooner?” moments. A dish of octopus, sliced crosswise into rounds and dressed with Turkish beef sausage and capers, is the freshest reimagining of a cephalopod around.
Goldfinch beet salad, Sebastopol, California
This is no ordinary beet salad from chef Rodrigo Mendoza. Caramelized yoghurt, pistachio and quick-pickled onions lift beets with alchemical magic from earthbound into a dish of mouth happiness. I slowed the eating experience of each bite to a crawl to savor the cascade of flavors and sensations. And I left, wondering: what is caramelized yoghurt?
Ditas Marin branzino, Sausalito
Served skin on, up, and crispy as a feuilletine, its nearly black color a bold statement of technique, the fish, under pressure from my fork, shattered (shattered!) to reveal an underbelly of soft flesh. Toppings of crispy shallots, garlic and other nubs of yumminess each contributed distinct flavor yet built a harmonious crescendo. I largely avoided the beurre blanc sauce – no need to add butter to this experience.
Aphotic oyster ice cream, San Francisco
Is it Chef Peter Hemsley’s intent to deceive the eye? After a nine-course tasting menu where visual cues gave way to surprises, oyster ice cream still felt fun and fresh. Into an oyster shell, an oyster-sized dollop of oyster-infused ice cream stands in for an actual oyster. A spray of foam and a sprig of seaweed are visual clues that it’s a dessert course. Your eye is telling your brain “vanilla! It’s vanilla!” while your mouth says “oyster.” It was a mouthful of sea-infused flavor that had me reconsidering what an oyster can do and seriously considering an eye exam.
Azalina’s mamak fried chicken, San Francisco
Eater SF, a site I contribute to, christened chef Azalina Eusope Chef of the Year. While I did not like every dish I tried at her restaurant, I would go back just to eat her chicken sandwich over and over. Served on a soft gluten-free bun and breaded with rice flour, a humble chicken sandwich lands on my list for its crisp but not hard fry, that bun (!!) and herby coconut dressing that brought the flavor of Southeast Asia to a dish that needed a refresh after its pandemic-era over-exposure.
Luce thalassa, San Francisco
An eight course tasting menu reflected on where Chef Dennis Efthymiou’s cooking career had taken him but a dish dedicated to his home country of Greece was a show-stopper. Named for the sea goddess, Thalassa placed a scallop in a shimmering turquoise sea of mussel broth and seaweed. Molecular gastronomy (seaweed and flowers) used to express a taste of place? A place on the Ionian Sea where Efthymiou grew up? I’ll say yes to that a thousand times.
The Lincoln French fries, Napa
You already know about my delight in carbohydrates, especially potatoes. I even wrote a whole piece about my favorite tots for Local Getaways. So it was a delight to come across the perfect bowl of French fries at a new gastropub. Crisp and crunchy with a whisper of softness inside, these are the French fries of a food writer’s dream, so good, the deserve a spot on my Best Bites of 2023 list. You should try them.
Yokai tuna tartare and nori chips, San Francisco
Two dishes on the appetizer menu at an izakaya in SoMa are not intended to be eaten together. But why not, when each amplifies the other’s best characteristics? Chef Marc Zimmerman further softens sashimi tuna with whipped avocado-serrano mousse. Pile it on a flash-fried cracker to add an umami bomb to the experience.
Cabby Shack steamed lobster, Plymouth, Mass.
A meal at the second-level patio of a restaurant in the town made famous by settlers more than 400 years ago is part of every visit to my brother, Marc, who lives nearby. The restaurant is known for its dairy-full chowder so I joyfully partake in lobster, crab and every other shellfish for which New England is known. Not a bad way to spend a summer’s eve.
Original Joe’s, beef carpaccio, San Francisco
Simple is hard. When a simple dish, such as beef carpaccio, is done right, it is a triumph. Dotted with crispy capers, the beef was a brilliant cerise color, its edges slightly crisp from its short time in the pan. The arugula towered over the beef – a meal unto itself – and was dressed with just enough oil to make it glossy, not soggy. With a few twists from the long grinder wielded by our server, a shower of black pepper added a heady perfume. Perfect.
Movida Lounge aguachile, San Francisco
Bridging Persian and Mexican cuisines seems natural in dishes like pomegranate chicken tostada and saffron prawns from chef Hoss Zaré. A stunning plate of halibut arrived in a pool of bright green broth, its color and pleasing sourness the whirled result of serrano, tomatillo and green plum. It’s a fresh perspective on ingredients that stand well enough alone but are even better brought together.
Banh Mi Zon sliced beef pho, Mill Valley
Guess what? The Thai iced tea (also pictured) is always dairy-free at this fast-casual restaurant. (Happy dance for me as I cannot digest dairy.) The real story here is the beef broth (in the second cup), a supporting player in the sliced beef pho. Beef bones, slow braised with ginger and aromatics, yields beefy, savory, gingery broth. Clarified before service, the broth manages a lightness not often found in any beefy dish. I’d buy it by the quart, if I could.
More Top Dishes I Ate in 2023
- Trio of pkhali at Piala in Sebastopol
- Crispy oyster at Oyster at the Barlow in Sebastopol
- Gluten-free fish taco and gluten-free empanada at Taco Rouge, San Francisco also wrote about them in this Eater piece)
- Mussels with green garlic broth at the restaurant at Boonville Hotel, Boonville, Mendocino
- Arepas de pabellon at Cavana, San Francisco
- Omakase at Akikos, San Francisco
- Asado de tira at Chotto Matte, San Francisco
- Smoked sturgeon buñuelos at Fable, San Francisco
- Bluefin tartar at The Desmond, San Diego
- Thai curry noodles at Zaab Zaab, at Market 57, New York City
- Porchetta sandwich at La Gastronomia di Porchetta, Fairfax, California
- Butternut squash with nut butter and aromatics at Baia, San Francisco
- Potato pave with seaweed butter at Second Story, Healdsburg
- Toro tartare with caviar at Nobu, Palo Alto
- Spicy noodles with grilled pork jowl at Ko Thai Republic, San Francisco
- Melanzane arrosto at Terra at Eataly Silicon Valley
Even More Best Bites
Want to see more of my Best Bites? Check out 2022’s list.